I like to think I’m a pretty advanced Christian. Kind of a Zen Christian.
I don’t worry about heaven: I live in the moment.
I don’t believe that the right prayers always get results: I face the darkness, I embrace the complexity.
But that’s not true, finally, that’s just pride and presumption, as I realized suddenly when I came across this striking passage in Romano Guardini’s great book, The Lord, a reflection on the meaning of the life of Jesus.
We have to take the Gospel seriously, Guardini says, we have to take Jesus at his word, and Jesus is always promising us rewards, is always promising us heaven, if only we will believe in him.
And to take this promise seriously, Guardini says—and this is what really struck me—to recognize that I need a reward, that I can’t endure all the rigors of the spiritual life without the hope of something in return, like a child, is to admit that despite all my supposed spiritual sophistication, I am a child.
The promise of reward is “a warning-call” to humility. Jesus is saying, as Guardini puts it, “you, man—with all your possibilities of perceiving and desiring good—you are nevertheless a creature.”
The tomb may be empty, and Mary Magdalene may mistake Jesus for the gardener, and Jesus may say to her, when she finally recognizes him, no, don’t hold on to me, I have go to my Father. Still, Mary does recognize him, he’s really there, in fact, and she is filled with joy, with indescribable joy, and even as Jesus ascends he promises to send the Spirit and he promises to return and he promises to take up all things unto himself so that nothing, nothing is ever lost.
If the tomb is just empty, if there’s ever just emptiness and complexity and despair, why bother to come to it at all? What’s the point?
Of course I want a reward. We all want a reward. We all want to go to heaven, all of us, and sometimes we do. We already do.
I was just coming on to the top of the hill, through the trees, Pip trotting along ahead of me, when no more than three or feet off my left shoulder, an owl lifted off a fir branch, flapping heavily, and crossed the trail in front of me. And though it was just a juvenile Barred Owl, dirty gray and still fuzzy around the edges, and though owls turn out not to be that smart after all when compared for example to a crow, are in fact relatively stupid, and though I had this feeling that this particular owl was thinking about swooping down on Pip and seeing if he could sink his talons into him, and so I shouted at him and I waved my arms, tried to shoo him away, he was really there, about the size of Pip, with wings even bigger, and he seemed big in the air, with those broad flapping wings, lifting him up and carrying him to the other side of the trail, and I didn’t take him as a symbol, of wisdom or anything else, I took him for a fact, which he was, I took him as real, which he was, and he filled me for a moment with a kind of energy, a kind of excitement. A kind of joy.
This is why I climb the hill. This is the reward I want: now and then an owl, in the middle of the day. The sudden, startled wings.